Nadal’s 13th: US Open 2013

20:17 Sun 22 Sep 2013
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Just under two weeks ago[1], Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in the US Open Men’s Final, winning his second US Open and bringing his Grand Slam title count to 13. After two sets it looked like it might be another classic match, but became a relatively straightforward four-set win.

I would love to see a comprehensive study of momentum in tennis. It’s a notion that’s been heavily criticized recently in team sports, but tennis is an individual endeavor with a huge psychological component and I suspect it’s a meaningful concept in the sport. Also, players do go through patches of better and worse play, and being able to withstand the other player’s strong play and come out ahead (or just even) is hugely important. Doing just that might be one of Rafael Nadal’s greatest abilities as a tennis player.

Djokovic came out flat in the first set, and Nadal dominated it, winning 6–2. Djokovic raised his level in the second, taking a 4–2 lead by breaking Nadal in a 54-shot (yes, “fifty-four”) rally. He continued his strong play in the third, but started making mistakes at the wrong times. His gameplan was to be very aggressive, because that’s how he can beat Nadal, so a high number of errors was expected. But he couldn’t afford to make too many in a row, or make them at the wrong times, or make them in positions where he had seemingly already won the point. But that’s what began to happen in the third set, and that’s what changed the match.

The key stretch of games started with Djokovic serving at 2–6, 6–3, 3–2. On the opening point, he misses a relatively easy forehand he should have won the point with. At 15–15, he misses a backhand long. He plays solidly to get to 40–30, but Nadal plays more aggressively on this point and wins it with a tremendous hook forehand. From there, Djokovic misses a forehand wide to set up break point, then misses a sitter backhand to give Nadal the break.

Nadal serves at 6–2, 3–6, 3–3 and holds easily; Djokovic holds as well behind strong serving and seems to have recovered his focus.

Nadal serves at 6–2, 3–6, 4–4:

Djokovic wins this after an even rally with a beautiful drop shot/lob combination.

Djokovic wins an amazing forehand-to-forehand down the line rally after Nadal trips going laterally on the baseline.

Djokovic hits an incredible forehand return that shackles Nadal, giving himself three break chances.

Nadal serves wide and wins the point with an amazing forehand down-the-line winner.

Djokovic hits a deep return of Nadal’s second serve, putting Nadal on the defensive. Nadal’s backhand slice keeps him in the point until Djokovic misses a relatively easy down-the-line forehand.

Nadal hits his hardest serve of the match, and his first ace, on the T to reach deuce.

Nadal hits a strong second serve on the center line, but Djokovic reaches it and get the rally to a neutral state before missing a cross-court backhand.

Advantage Nadal
Djokovic’s return of a second serve lands on the baseline, setting up an easy putaway.

After a neutral rally, an aggressive Nadal forehand draws an error long from Djokovic.

Advantage Nadal
Nadal serves wide, eliciting a short return that draws Nadal to the net. Djokovic’s lob attempt isn’t high enough and Nadal puts it away.

Djokovic serves to stay in the set at 2–6, 6–3, 4–5:

After a second serve, Djokovic takes control of the rally and wins it with a down-the-line forehand.

Another forehand winner from Djokovic.

An excellent rally that Nadal wins with a surprise drop shot that forces a weak response from Djokovic.

Djokovic his a forehand long.

Djokovic takes control of the point and has a sitter forehand that he misses.

Nadal surprises Djokovic with a very deep down-the-line forehand in this rally, and Djokovic is unable to return it into the court. Third set Nadal.

While it’s arguable that Djokovic played better tennis in the third set, it’s clear that he had it in his grasp, and that while Nadal played well to come back, Djokovic’s errors at key times were the reason he lost the set.

At the start of the third set, Djokovic tried to recover, earning break points on the Nadal serve, but on the first he missed a cross-court forehand winner, and on the second Nadal’s serve was too good. Serving at 0–1, Djokovic made some bad errors, and Nadal guessed correctly on break point to where Djokovic would go with a forehand in trying to put away an easy sitter, and responded with a phenomenal forehand down-the-line winner for the break.

After that, it was mostly a formality. Nadal was clearly more confident and played more aggressively from that point on, and Djokovic could not muster any further significant challenges.

Nadal’s 13th Slam is also his fifth Slam not at Roland Garros, and puts him just one behind Sampras and four behind Federer. Right now it looks as if he could get another four titles at Roland Garros alone, such has been his dominance there—but four years is a long time in sports. Nadal has to find the line between protecting his knees and taking advantage of his incredible hard court play (he’s undefeated on hard courts in the late-year hard court season), and if he does, he could add the 2014 Australian Open to his titles. The odds are reasonable of his getting to the all-time Grand Slam record.

Roger Federer, on the other hand, looks increasingly unlikely to add to his total. He’s had a poor year, his poorest since early in his career. Defending Wimbledon champion, he lost in the second round there, ending his record streak of 36 consecutive quarterfinal-or-better Grand Slam appearances. At the US Open, he lost in straight sets in the fourth round to Tommy Robredo—who had not beaten Federer in 10 previous matches. Many of his losses are following similar patterns, in which he cannot convert on break and/or set points. It’s not clear what he can do about that, or if that’s merely a symptom of other problems in his game, but for the first time I think it’s legitimate to ask if age has caught up to him, and whether or not he’ll be able to contend for Slams again. I think he will, but it’s more of a question than it has been before. (Assuming he reached the year-end championships, however, his indoor record has to make him a favorite there regardless of the rest of his year.)

As a result of that loss, Djokovic dropped to number two in the world, and lost a match he must have felt was in his grasp when he was up a break in the third. He needs answers for dealing with Nadal, who has made an impressive return to number one after enduring a dominant period by Djokovic and a long injury layoff.

(Constrained time meant I saw less of the tournament than I would have liked, and none of the women’s side, so I don’t have any comments to make on it.)

[1] The men’s final was, yet again, on a Monday, and I wasn’t able to watch it live. It took me until this weekend to get to it.

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